The chief amusement of the found-footage horror film normally involves watching the filmmakers wrestle with ways to portray a flabbergasting contrivance with even vague plausibility. Yes, the modern citizen of a first-world society, enabled by ever-mutating technology, is capable of scaling incredible heights of narcissism, but it takes someone of potentially psychopathic imbalance to continually concern themselves with a recording device while looking in the face of (a usually quite heinous) death. The best solution filmmakers have come up with thus far is to work in an intentional satirical subtext that’s meant to parody said narcissism, and thus theoretically flip the absurdity of the structure on its ear.
That sort of satire may partially constitute the heart of the collected filmmakers’ intentions in the found-footage anthology horror film V/H/S, but it’s tough to tell, as this is one of the thematically murkiest horror movies in years. The film is mostly an example of a group of talented neophytes reveling in the analog glories and miseries of watching movies via 1980s VHS tapes, and as such should mostly be read as an occasionally quite effective lark. But one of the chief fascinations of the horror film in general is its ability to conjure deeper resonances regardless of its makers’ level of control.
In the case of V/H/S, the gender hostility that drives every story is so pointed, repetitive, and overwhelming that it would almost be impossible for it to be entirely accidental. All of the stories, which are all written and directed by men (this genre sorely needs more estrogen behind the camera), are explicitly about Man’s terror of Woman. In every story, dudes try to manipulate chicks for various, mostly prurient, reasons and either succeed or suffer Biblical wrath. And, as you’d expect, the directors are torn between examining the exploitation and getting off on it.
This sexual tension, which very explicitly indicates that the filmmakers are mostly in their 20s or early 30s, is most disturbingly expressed in Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger and Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th. The former audaciously comments on the frightening reliance we have on technology in maintaining and establishing romantic relationships while also functioning as a despairing metaphor for domestic abuse. This film is so frightening and beautifully sustained it will probably take you a while to wonder why Skype would exist in a world captured on a shitty VHS cassette. Tuesday the 17th, the only vignette in the film that actively takes the specificities of VHS technology into consideration, is a chilling and unusual work that humanizes the slasher film by exploring the profoundly damaged psyche of a Final Girl.
Amateur Night and Second Honeymoon, directed by David Bruckner and Ti West, respectively, are less original but undeniably eerie. Amateur Night, which bears a strong resemblance to an entry in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie that featured Rae Dawn Chong, is probably the most purely terrifying short in the film, and Second Honeymoon is an unusually cruel Westian slow-burn that has a painful stinger in its tail.
The other two tales, the framing narrative Tape 66 and 10/31/98, directed by Adam Wingard and Radio Silence, respectively, are more problematic and indicative of the uncertainties and schizophrenia of the film’s overall conception. Tape 66 retrospectively cheapens the empathy that Swanberg and McQuaid display, as it mixes jokiness with events, such as attempted rape, in a fashion that’s in considerably bad taste. 10/31/98 isn’t offensive and has a few gracefully creepy effects, but it’s also scattershot and essentially pointless, seemingly conceived for no other reason that to stage yet another scene of a woman being tortured. Overall, V/H/S reveals itself to be a sharp 85-minute ballad of youthful gender paranoia stuck in a bloated 116-minute oddity’s body. One can’t help but suspect that the directors, in their zeal, would probably take that as a compliment.
There are all kinds of problems with this film's highly variable image (fuzziness, inconsistent color saturation, etc.), but that's obviously the intended effect. The film is meant to be an eyesore and this DVD has preserved that intention with indisputable flying colors. The audio, while logically inconsistent given the film's conceit, is a little more polished than it would be if the film had really happened. Subtle audio polishing has been done to heighten the suspense and to ensure that you catch salient dialogue.
The extras are padded but generally affectionate and appealing, which is appropriate given the love for horror movies that informs this film. Of the supplements, the audio commentary captures the camaraderie and aspirations of the crew most effectively, though director Ti West is notably absent. The deleted scenes included from some of the shorts are negligible. Nothing in this package is a must-see, but the inclusions are refreshingly sincere, particularly when compared to the polished soundbites you generally hear from celebs clearly bored with promoting their films.
V/H/S is a collection of tales of gender warfare that are scattershot, tasteless, and occasionally quite frightening.